Growing up in a household held together by two German immigrants, Ester Brisch watched how her parents tried to assimilate into a new, unfamiliar country.
As thousands did in that time period following World War II, they decided to leave the old world behind after theirs saw destruction and despair. Fearful of what political tensions would bring forth, Canada was the postmark of a better life.
Both fleeing separately across the ocean, her parents met in Canada for the first time after corresponding through countless letters. Although strangers at first, they both agreed with the vision that they were going to be hard-working Canadian and raise their kids to keep an open heart — which sparked a lifetime of community work for Brisch.
“It wasn’t easy having German heritage in the 50s because it was quite close to the end of the war so we got teased a lot about that but I guess that’s why we always held onto a certain compassion for people that are newcomers to Canada,” says Brisch.
“I always wanted to make people feel welcomed… we connect with one another more when we just realize that at the end of the day we bleed the same colour. We feel the same sadness and pain so why would we want to implement that on someone else?”
As a child, Brisch says they moved around a lot as her father kept up with mining jobs across the west. She and her siblings spent a lot of time reintroducing themselves to new people and landscapes, but they learned to quickly adapt and welcome the challenges that came with unpacking boxes.
And while living in these small isolated mining communities, Brisch says everyone knew and had to rely on one another.
Despite the hesitations that followed German immigrants overseas, her parents made an effort to keep their doors open to their neighbours and co-workers — always sure to keep a few cans of pop in stock to host their new Canadian friends.
It’s during those years that Brisch saw how generous and open-minded her parents were, doing what they can to make the world a better place. So alongside those various tight-knit communities she called home where everyone shared food and services, it was an easy decision to go into nursing and continue helping.
Brisch says her parents made it known that they highly valued education, eager to learn from any book on the shelf. Although their opportunities to go to school were scarce after the war and then busy raising kids in Canada, they pushed to educate themselves about different cultures and histories from the guests they readily welcomed into their home.
When Brisch and her siblings all enrolled into their studies as adults, her parents did as well. Her mom also pursued nursing, which enabled another level of community work within her family as they all strived to use their skills to help those in need.
Working as a nurse for almost 40 years throughout B.C. and Alberta, Brisch says she’s dealt with many difficult situations but found that what got her through was being able to relate at a human level to her patients and their families.
Oftentimes, she would have people come through who were immigrants and spoke another language so it would be easier for them to get their thoughts across during stressful procedures.
Recognizing the similarities, she’d try to bridge the gap between them by talking about her cultural upbringings and even speaking in German to those who could understand to ease their hospital experience.
“When I was working, there were a lot of immigrants from Germany so I often used my language skills at work through very intense, emotional situations,” she says.
“If you speak another language, it means you can understand other cultures so that’s really important too. When you’re working with people of all different ethnic backgrounds, you want to make sure you understand where they’re coming from, so that you can help them solve whatever it is that they need.”
After working in the Northwest in both Terrace and Prince Rupert, Brisch with her husband Dave Gordon returned to raise their own family here. For them, the community aspect was an important part of their social life as tried to volunteer as much as they could during their spare time.
Brisch became involved with many groups in town, including Terrace Women and Development where she helped run projects for other women in the area and continues to raise money for females in developing third-world countries.
She says many people question why they don’t just focus on Terrace but Brisch sees the importance in providing aid to women all around the globe as she believed it benefits us all as a society to bring them up.
“I became a feminist when I was 13, I had a great French teacher then, a real firecracker and a very smart woman, who really had the right words to describe and talk about the goals of women and what kind of young women do we want to become,” she says.
“Matriarchs are strong people and have a lot of responsibilities about maintaining the culture and the family, which women still do all over the world but they’re not fully recognized for that in our modern society. In the last hundreds of years, we’ve forgotten what the role and strength of a woman is.”
When Brisch retired as a nurse about three years ago, she says she wasn’t ready to sit at home. She recognized this new chapter was an opportunity to give back in other ways.
“It’s important that in every phase of our life that we find a way to feel useful and to develop new interests or new ways of participating in your community, plus it’s sort of been a lifelong thing for me to volunteer,” says Brisch.
“So I knew that is what I’m going to be doing from now on, to keep doing meaningful work.”
Understanding what her parents went through as immigrants in Canada, Brisch and Dave also took on the initiative to sponsor Syrian refugee families moving to Terrace from their war-torn homes. She feels a pull to welcome them into the country that has given her own family so many opportunities.
Whenever she visits the newly-arrived family, who are still learning English, they often bond over the making of the meals they make to welcome her — just like her parents did when they were hoping to close that cultural gap back then.
Currently, Brisch volunteers regularly at the local food banks where she cooks and distributes meals to shelters. She says she’s been humbled with how much gratitude is shown towards their team with just a simple batch of cookies or an extra meal to go, and how people of all walks of life can come together over a meal to share their humanity.
“I think that most of us associate food with the love in our families,” she says.
“So when we share food, it shows us how much we care for our friends and neighbors.”